“While I understand the passion and the sentiment behind it, I don’t think it’s necessarily constructive at this point,” Senator Bob Menendez (DN.J.) told reporters on Monday. He reiterated that Democrats will present alternatives in hopes of achieving a “positive outcome.”
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were equally quick to switch to the next steps when they returned to Washington Monday, less than 24 hours after the Senate umpire’s verdict. Though they gave few details about how they would adjust their strategy, those Democrats insisted they could find a way to direct immigration beyond Senate Byzantine rules.
Privately, however, Democrats acknowledge that the MP has likely closed their path to expanding legal status without GOP votes in their $3.5 trillion social spending plan.
The MP’s ruling is the latest thorn in the side of Democrats as they attempt to push the highest progressive priorities into law through the so-called budget reconciliation process, allowing them to bypass a Senate GOP filibuster. Many in Biden’s party saw the reconciliation package as their best chance to deliver on their pledge to push through immigration reform this Congress after years of stalled bipartisan talks.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Monday that Democrats “have a Plan B, C and D” and will meet with the MP soon. When asked if he would support her to ignore her if the Democrats’ backup plans are rejected, Durbin replied, “I don’t think that’s realistic.”
An alternative policy that Democrats and proponents are pursuing is narrowing their horizons on immigration by making a simple change to a decades-old “registration law,” according to several people familiar with the discussions. That law allows immigrants to apply for a green card if they arrived in the U.S. before a certain year, and that date was last changed in 1986 to allow undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before 1972 to get a green card. to apply for legal status.
Some Democrats say simply updating that law with a more recent year, which would significantly increase the number of immigrants eligible to apply for legal status, could pass the Senate MP.
“The registry is a possibility,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), noting that the law hasn’t been updated since the Reagan era. “We’re looking at all the different alternatives. We’re not giving up.”
Menendez confirmed his interest in that approach: “We are not changing the law, which was the essence of her arguments that I read in her opinion,” he said. “We’re only updating a date.”
Incorporating some sort of immigration reform into the party’s social spending package is a key priority for both the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the much larger Congressional Progressive Caucus. That bloc of about 100 members in the House has outlined immigration as one of the five priorities that must be in their package to gain left-wing support.
In the House, at least two Latino Democrats have vowed to oppose the entire package if immigration reform is not included. Still, other lawmakers and aides speculated that those Democrats would be forced to downplay their threat if the MP completely rejects the strategy.
One of those Democrats, Rep. Chuy Garcia, reiterated Monday that “immigration reform must be part of reconciliation.”
The Illinois Democrat also suggested there might be another option: overruling the MP, something Senate Democrats have little appetite for.
“We would like to exhaust all possibilities before we come to something like this. But we must not forget that its role is to interpret rules. In the past, the body has set aside the MP’s recommendations,” Garcia said.
Democrats had argued to the MP that the budgetary effect of providing permanent legal status to Dreamers, farm workers, essential workers during the pandemic and those with temporary protected status would be significant enough to involve in reconciliation as more people qualify would come for federal benefits. But the MP concluded that their proposal is “a broad, new immigration policy” that heralds a societal change that “significantly outweighs the budgetary impact”.
The MP’s decision on Sunday is also likely to renew calls from the left to the Senate to scrap the legislative filibuster, which Senate Democrats currently don’t have the votes for.
“We expected this to be very difficult,” said D-Texas representative Veronica Escobar.
When asked if there would be calls within the Hispanic Caucus to ignore the Senate official, Escobar said “we’re not there yet.”
Senate Republicans praised the MP. sen. Thom Tillis (RN.C.), who is part of a bipartisan working group focused on immigration reform, said Sunday’s decision “rejects the idea that either party could do it alone” and could motivate Republicans and Democrats to return to the negotiation table on the subject.
The bipartisan working group has met several times, including earlier this summer, but there is little evidence of progress so far. Senate Republicans have said they don’t want to tackle a road to citizenship without changes to Biden’s border policy.
When asked whether a bipartisan immigration reform was possible this Congress, Tillis offered a wry dose of reality.
“Of course,” he said. “Like the last 20.”